Abse, Dannie (Vol. 29)
Dannie Abse 1923–
Welsh poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, short story writer, and editor.
Best known as a poet of modern, daily life, Abse is praised for his honesty, for his balanced view of life—at times affirming, at times despairing—and for his compassion. Contributing to his individual sensibility is Abse's Jewish heritage, his Roman Catholic education, and his practice as a physician. Abse takes as his setting the metropolitan scene—he lives in London—and focuses particularly on middle-class existence, conveying his thoughtful reflections in a forceful voice. The same intelligent, probing spirit is evident in Abse's three novels, his several plays, and his essays.
Critics note that Abse's poetic style and themes have developed consistently throughout his career. His early work is more markedly public poetry—generalizations on social themes—and more imitative in style than his later work. The poems in Abse's first collection, After Every Green Thing (1949), show, for example, the influence of his fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas and are written in a romantic vein. Critics observe that the poems are laden with symbolism and rely heavily on the use of the incantatory refrain. With Walking Under Water (1952) Abse achieved greater control over form and symbols and evidenced the beginning of the personal poetry that characterizes his later work. In Tenants of the House (1957) and Poems, Golders Green (1962), collections of Abse's maturing period, there is a decrease in the number of social and metaphysical poems and a shift to poems of personal experience, rendered in a conversational tone of diminished rhetoric and tight rhythm. A Small Desperation (1968) and Funland (1972), which Abse described as "The Waste Land gone mad," express Abse's mature personal outlook and artistic tone, the result of the integration of his poetic and medical vocations. As Howard Seargeant writes: "Although Dannie Abse has produced outstanding poems at various stages of his poetic career, there can be little doubt that since he has been writing 'as a whole man' and accepting his medical profession within the total complexity of his experience, his poetry has gained in scope, imaginative depth and psychological insight." In his most recent collection, Way Out in the Centre (1981), Abse draws more extensively on his Jewish background and his family life to explore the human dilemmas of love and loss, the scientific and the irrational, the personal and the professional.
Although Abse is best known for his poetry, it was his autobiographical novel Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve (1954) that originally won him recognition as a promising young writer. His two later novels, Some Corner of an English Field (1957) and O. Jones, O. Jones (1970), are concerned with issues of social conscience and evidence the poetic skill already established in his verse. Abse's most recent prose work, A Strong Dose of Myself (1983), is a collection of essays and lectures on poetry, and also includes notes on medical practice and some autobiographical pieces. This pastiche reveals the sociopsychological emphasis that has been a strong feature in all Abse's later work.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)
James D. Finn
Dan's experiences [in Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve] are those commonly attributed to that fabled animal, the average boy. He has a schoolmate, Keith, with whom he is alternately friend and enemy; he comes to know the meaning of death through that of Keith's mother and his own pet frog; he learns of family strife and grievances, of the existence of girls, of the large outside world, of Berente, Spain and Dachau. The incidents, presented to us in a roughly chronological order, are related only because they happen to a single person. In E. M. Forster's terms, we have here a story but no plot.
As the events are unfolded we say "and then—and then?" But there is no causal relation between them; we do not ask "why?" The merit of the novel rests, thus, upon the incremental value of the separate incidents, and these, while interesting enough to read about, are seldom affecting or impressive enough to remember. Those that linger are usually the comic or the outrageous….
A constant irritant throughout the book is a confusion attendant upon the identity of the narrator. Is it the child Dan, a mature reflective Dan, or the author?…
There is an odd "poetical" quality about much of the writing that enables it to be distinctive without being distinguished. It reads like a pale imitation of Dylan Thomas, or as if the author had waged a losing struggle to find in English the equivalent for a foreign idiom....
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Dannie Abse's Some Corner of an English Field … suffers, I kept feeling, from the characteristically second-novel lack of an urgently felt action. Its theme is topical: the Outsider—what is he, why is he, where is he to go, the intellectual among middlebrows, the Jew among Christians, the non-acceptor? Henderson, a young doctor in the RAF, gets involved, through fondness and pity more than love, with the wife of a decent, heart-diseased, impotent friend of his; then with a shaggy girl … who seems to provide an escape from the smug hierarchical society of the Services; and leaves them both, feeling 'outside' both the conventional and the rebellious. What else is there for him? The question is unanswered. Mr. Abse writes well—movingly, sharply, raising even trifles into interest with a peculiar soundness and freshness of observation, a kind of spiritual integrity that enriches even his rather skimpy material.
Isabel Quigly, in a review of "Some Corner of an English Field," in The Spectator (© 1956 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 197, No. 6691, September 21, 1956, p. 396.
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The New Yorker
Mr. Abse's work [Some Corner of an English Field] is vague to the point of carelessness. He makes no apparent effort to complete his book. He merely stops writing and drops the whole thing. But his talent shows in many ways—in his thoughtful understanding of his main characters, and in the effort he makes to discover what they might mean to one another if even one of them could be brought to a sense of direction. And it shows sharply in certain phrases. He describes "the mangy cat with a piece of thin limp rope in its mouth, a length of pain," continuing, "Rope that in fact was the tail of a mouse." (pp. 72-3)
A review of "Some Corner of an English Field," in The New Yorker (© 1957 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXII, No. 46, January 5, 1957, pp. 72-3.
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Mr. Dannie Abse's poetry [in Tenants of the House] is full of character and is assignable to no literary school. It is skilful, but gives the impression that it has no great opinion of skill. Individuality is what lends it force, and the style is clearly the man, a coincidence which is becoming more and more rare. Technique has no opinions; but an individual voice must have something to say, and Mr. Abse's poetry interests as much by what he says as by his way of saying it, which is often rough and ready. In the religious poems he uses allegory in such a natural way that we can read several meanings, each supplementing the others. I fancy that Mr. Abse could write a modern Everyman. (p. 392)
Edwin Muir, "Kinds of Poetry," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1385, September 28, 1957, pp. 391-92.∗
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In their respective countries, Great Britain and the United States, Dannie Abse and Donald Hall are considered to be up-and-coming poets. They are among the plausible heirs of the modern movement. They are sophisticates in the best sense, urbane younger men, sensitive to literary traditions, aware of social values and distinctions, intelligently critical of prevailing middle-class standards and, in the case of Mr. Abse, of mankind's perilous flirtation with the destructive power of the atom. Both of them are concerned with the theme of self-knowledge, which is in part knowledge of the relationship of the poet to himself and to the discipline of his craft and in part knowledge of the relationship of the poet to other individuals, quite as isolated as he, and to the mass of men.
"Tenants of the House" comprises work of a five-year period, 1951–1956; and one finds that Mr. Abse writes most convincingly when he writes most personally. A number of the love poems, for instance, express with taste a quite beguiling individual sensibility. The metaphysical and social poems however, tend to collect echoes and betray influences; centered in abstractions, these poems are nevertheless "overdressed."
Gene Baro, "Seven Modern Poets, Beauty, Wisdom, Grace—and a Dash of Bitters: 'Tenants of the House'," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November...
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It is nearly twenty years since Dannie Abse's first book of poems was accepted by a London publisher….
Twenty years is a long time and Dannie is now forty-three. On his last two books in particular he has left an individual and master mark. Of Tenants of the House, published in 1957, The Listener's critic wrote that 'while the rest of us have been spending our time being smart or angry or whatever, [Dannie Abse] has quietly consolidated his position as one of the most satisfying and genuine of contemporary poets, with things to say that matter and the power to say them forcefully and originally.' To this general encomium I would add the more specific claim that he has made himself one of the few successful contemporary poets of the extended symbolic concept, a point as far from his beginnings in a natural, discursive eloquence as he could well reach. His poetic journey is much more than a canter round the home meadows: it may indeed take some following. (p. 107)
The poems in [Abse's first book, After Every Green Thing (1946)] make little overt reference to his initiatory unpoetic self. XI ('A man with no roots is lost') is plainly a comment on his Jewish heritage: XVII (The Journey), despite its vague symbolism, is recognisably about leaving home for London. There are four other poems, XX, XXV, XXXII and XXXIV, which suggest some personal emotion or dilemma. But it is plain that the poet...
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Dannie Abse abstracts a mild and attractive romanticism from the territory of Larkin and Edward Thomas: and one could say that Larkin is better with the kind of pathos attempted in say, 'From a Suburban Window' and 'Interview with a Spirit Healer'. In fact, some of the poems in A Small Desperation are almost too gentle and approachable. Abse has an easy, public vein which succeeds agreeably in the lighter pieces (like the Causley-ish 'Ballad of Oedipus Sex') but can carry over disarmingly into some of the serious ones, reducing the effect. Where the more questioning elements are given rein, he is sometimes very telling: 'Fah' especially, and 'Hunt the Thimble', start some disquieting echoes.
Alan Brownjohn, "Pre-Beat," in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 76, No. 1951, August 2, 1968, p. 146.∗
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The Times Literary Supplement
Dr. Abse has made a steady advance from the sonorous anonymity of his early poems—touched by Yeats and Dylan Thomas—to a dry, recognizable voice. Even since his 1962 volume [Poems, Golders Green], he has enlarged the virtues apparent in poems like "Chalk" until he can now claim [in A Small Desperation] to be charming but masculine, a craftsman whose skill does not hobble his integrity. In style he tends to be aphoristic, quotably witty: he tells us, "The cenotaph clock punishes the hour"; he remarks "the made ghost in a vacuum cleaner". His landscapes are urban; his people undergo fringe emotions like tolerable anxiety and hesitant courage. As a moralist he judges himself more harshly than he judges others. Here is an artist whose unvarnished truths give pleasure.
"Special Pleading," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3468, August 15, 1968, p. 867.∗
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J. W. Lambert
Of the quarter's new plays it is to be hoped that Dannie Abse's clinical-comical study of north-north west madness in a mental institution, Pythagoras, is taken up by theatres other than the enterprising Brum Studio of Birmingham Rep…. (p. 56)
[The main character is] a patient who believes, like Pythagoras, in the transmigration of souls—believes himself in fact to be that famous Greek.
Although Mr. Abse had a lot of fun at the expense of medical authorities—his hero impersonates inadvertently the head of the mental hospital—the fun remained good-natured and illuminative of character. Indeed, it was the observation of the characters, both inmates and staff, which gave Mr. Abse's spry and witty satire its abidingly human quality.
It did not suffer (as for example [Ken Kesey's] Cuckoo's Nest suffers) from a sneakily contemptuous tone in the writing or the acting…. [But] I was left uncertain of the nightmarish ending. Did Mr. Abse have trouble finishing it? (p. 57)
J. W. Lambert, in a review of "Pythagoras," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 123, Winter, 1976, pp. 56-7.
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[It] is slightly disconcerting to find on examining the Collected Poems, that [Abse] has decided to reject so many of [his poems] himself! If it is not too indelicate a phrase for a doctor, he has been commendably ruthless in his pruning—retaining only one poem from After Every Green Thing, four poems from Walking Under Water, and about two-thirds of Tenants of the House, his first three books, as well as revising some of the poems and changing a couple of titles.
As a critic, I would not wish to quarrel much about his selection, though I have reservations about one or two of his exclusions. For instance, I would be sorry to lose The Abandoned, since this poem, concerned as it is with religious doubts and uncertainties, tells us something about one of the major preoccupations important to Abse's development—he has always brought a religious sensibility to bear upon his themes (using the term in its widest sense). It also makes a powerful impact upon the reader, perhaps because for the first time he attempts a direct approach to a subject he had previously been inclined to wrap up in allegory open to a variety of interpretations.
Similarly I would like to preserve Tenants of the House, the title poem of his third book. Published about the time that the Movement v Mavericks controversy was at its height (it will be remembered that Abse co-edited the Mavericks...
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[Dannie Abse's Collected Poems 1948–1976] are enjoyable because most of them are well-made, they can be understood at a first or second reading which pleases both the author and his considerable following; they are enlivening because many of them contain moments of humour, give the same satisfaction as a good short story, and are very much of our time in being framed within recognisable situations; and several of them, the core of Abse's achievement, convey a real feeling of unease, which is what interests me most. There are few contemporary practitioners in English who communicate such a sense of something very nasty continuing, through us and around us—a sort of disquieting apprehension that things are about to fall apart even in the most banal and humdrum circumstances. It is as if he really wishes to celebrate only the spontaneous joys, the hopes and consolations of living, but is overtaken by his knowledge of the dust we each come to. Gently, tenderly, compassionately he reminds us—in sadness and some wonder—of the common fate. (p. 18)
[Although he is prolific, a] handful of poems gives Abse his reputation, and this is all he needs. At its lowest, in his more lightweight structures, that reputation has come under attack for its presentation of a confessional, London Welsh Jewish 'victim' who believes that modern, urban, confused, middle-class existence is decent subject-matter for poetry. Rubbish, say these shocked...
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Dannie Abse's Collected Poems is a substantial book. It displays a serious poet ("Yes, Madam, as a poet I do take myself seriously") developing his characteristic sense of irony, and a style which managed to move rapidly from the artificiality of an early poem like "Epithalamion" to a mixture of plain speaking and sonorous elevation capable of expressing how "everything and everybody / are perplexed and perplexing, deeply unknown". In "Letter to Alex Comfort" Dr. Abse comments on how his friend has "dug deep / into the wriggling earth for a rainbow with an honest spade" and those words might well serve to describe the progress of his own career as a poet. The honesty has been conspicuous, and his alertness to a wide range of experience, the vicissitudes and oddities of daily life, has produced a modest number of rainbows.
However, situations which may seem strikingly full of ironic coincidences and possibilities will often resist attempts to rework them at the level of art, and a good few of Dannie Abse's most ambitious poems press on relentlessly in disregard of this fact. "A Night Out" can be seen as fairly typical. It opens with familiar ease, disarmingly conversational … then, after skirmishing with the poetic … it plunges headlong…. The reader has been carefully prepared for the second, central stanza in which, as they munch milk chocolate, the poet and his wife watch
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William H. Pritchard
Dannie Abse … is about as accepting of the human lot, for all its disasters, as a poet in 1978 could be. Since his last volume, Funland, came out five years ago, one is sorry to see that only the last twenty pages of this two-hundred page collection [Collected Poems 1948–1976] date from after that Funland itself was a much better book of poems than Mr. Abse's earlier work, and is surely the heart of the new volume; but that this poet possesses Eliot's "different way of saying it" I'm not fully convinced. [In his essay "What is Minor Poetry," T. S. Eliot defines a genuine poet as one who has something new to say and has a "different way of saying it."] (p. 232)
These poems reveal a decent man, not very different from us (or what we'd like to think we are), except that Dannie Abse is both a physician and a poet. Still, being the decent man can sometimes be a poetic liability. In "Demo Against the Vietnam war, 1968," Abse, challenging himself to "Praise just one thing in London," decides that it will not be some royal park, nor the Thames, nor some "elegiac Square," nor the National Gallery; no, it will be a "tatty group, under Nelson's column" making their protest against the war…. The reader is expertly invited to become a decent man also, feel a glow, and at moments like this one senses Abse's limitation as a poet, his failure to write (in Stevens's term) a poem that resists the intelligence almost...
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Much of Way Out in the Centre is intent on disclosing the predicament of being both a doctor and a poet. At times it is movingly personal as in "X-ray" and "A Winter Visit", both of which concern a physician's attitude to his ill and aged mother. Abse writes of wanting to cry but being prevented by a professional familiarity with illness and grief: "for I inhabit a white coat not a black / even here—and am not qualified to weep." One vocation complicates the other.
Affecting in itself as his dilemma is, Abse is concerned to take it further in a way which seems to assert poetry over medicine. The last lines of "A Winter Visit" appear to offer his compensatory and intuitively poetic embodiment of escape from what is too much before him as experience:
So I speak of small approximate things,
of how I saw, in the park, four flamingoes
standing, one-legged on ice, heads beneath wings.
The trouble is that anything can become a telling "objective correlative" when the poet's mood is powerful enough to invest observation with the necessary feeling. Abse's approach to his predicament seems therefore to be less surprisingly individual than one might expect.
In "Lunch and Afterwards" Abse approaches the gist of his problem. It seems to arise from a contest between his physician's reliance on...
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Michael J. Collins
[The work in Dannie Abse's Way Out in the Centre] is as diverse as the man and grows out of his Jewish heritage, the practice of medicine, life in the city of London, a concern with poetry and other poets, the experience of love and loss. The title, which comes from the last line of "A Note to Donald Davie in Tennessee," suggests something of the dissociation the poet seems to feel from the world in which he lives…. But the best poems in the book are finally such more private ones as the love poem "Last Words," the epithalamion "Smile Please" and the two beautifully moving poems on the poet's mother, "A Winter Visit" and "X-ray."
In a poem called "One Sunday Afternoon" the speaker finds himself in a house where, 200 years earlier, the squire hanged himself: "But listen—a small coincidence—a slam / from the hall (the curtains shook) and I am / less rational, more alone, since in my book / not seeing is believing." The last words here, "not seeing is believing," suggest the darker currents that often trouble the generally clear waters of the collection: the irrational, the inexplicable, the tragic emerge from time to time to disclaim the apparent order of Abse's world. One of the best poems in the book, "Bedtime Story," offers, at the outset, a vision of reality that colors the entire collection. In it the speaker describes first the "flawed lineage" of "angels botched" and then their leader…. This solitary...
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A Strong Dose of Myself collects Abse's essays, broadcasts and lectures from the past decade. They are presented frankly as an assemblage of disparate items, a "mosaic" in which Abse hopes the reader will "find a pattern". A pattern, if that means a structure which implies an appropriate place for every fragment, does not emerge, but there are recurrent themes, which will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve and A Poet in the Family: medical practice, the search for a poetic voice, the richly quirky suburban existence of a family of "wandering Welsh Jews", the self-doubt and self-advertisement of a competitive youngest son.
Inevitably, perhaps, some of the most absorbing pieces are those dealing with medical experience. "Notes Mainly at the Clinic" is chiefly concerned not with cancer and tuberculosis but with psychology: the psychology of the incompetent doctor, of the patient who undergoes major surgery without ever letting himself understand that he has cancer, of the journalist who interviews Abse as poet and then, having asked bluntly "What moves you to tears, Dr. Abse?", confesses that she is herself suffering from a terminal illness. Such material may be merely a higher form of gossip, but it does have a further interest, in showing the plain-speaking stoicism and modesty of Abse's best poems to be a by-product of frequent confrontations with anxious suffering in situations where...
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'In dreams begins responsibility,' used by Yeats as the epigraph to his 1914 volume, could stand also at the head of all Dannie Abse's published plays. From the first performance of House of Cowards in 1960 to that of Gone in January in 1977, their dramatic images have been concerned with the making of choices and with the recognition of moral imperatives. Though differing considerably in setting, technique and achievement, the plays are obviously linked, obviously the products of the same imagination.
These plays are aloof from the main currents moving through English theatre in the sixties and seventies, which in itself awakens sympathetic curiosity. If they have an affinity to anything outside themselves it is perhaps to the radio play, that underestimated form in which reliance upon language is often virtually complete. That is not to say that Abse's plays lack theatricality, as we shall see, but it is an indication of how much his language achieves in this context. A reader of his poetry will know that Dannie Abse has an ear for the rhythms of the speaking voice, and this link between his poetry and his plays is at once evident. The people who inhabit these dramas, whatever their status as characters, whatever the nature of their interests, are people whose lines are eminently speakable. They are, to that extent, convincing. (p. 85)
Pythagoras gives us the parodox of the sanity of the insane...
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Some of Dannie Abse's contemporaries seem to me in danger of being victims of their time, convinced by what they often hate and regret, and correspondent with those theoreticians, continental and otherwise, who consider poetry a word game, not in touch—as its parent language cannot be—with any reality beyond itself. In this shrinkage the poet, like a drowning man, is likely to clutch the personal or domestic scene, the little world immediately available to him. Modesty, though appealing in itself, is questionable as a desideratum for poetry. Yet almost inevitably it becomes the prevailing mien. Such poetry, by what it shrugs off, is bound to substantiate the theoreticians' disparaging view of it. Fortunately Dannie Abse's love of language, the richness of his heritage, and the feeling-fulness welling out of these, guarantee a sense of the copiousness of the world in his work…. Abse's work delights in the play of the mind, language in its resourcefulness, those mintings as sweet in the mouth and the mind as anything else—words. He knows what we add to life through our feelings and our thoughts (like the bird's song and the tree's leaves), and also through the arts and that paramount human faculty, now most embattled, by which the arts prosper, the imagination. But imagination never divorced from the earth.
And if, with the lights of our civilization virtually out, we are blind together in this present darkness at noon, Dannie...
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